If you’re going to coast on charm, you could do a lot worse than Dwayne Johnson. The former pro wrestler and consummate showman has displayed a knack for engaging in a little self-deprecation when the circumference of his biceps and the wattage of his smile prove a little too intimidating, and he trots out that particular shtick to great comedic effect in the inane but harmless Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle.
The basic high-concept of this family adventure is that four very different high-school students are sucked into the immersive world of a live-action video game while cleaning out a storeroom during after-school detention; they each end up embodying a different character archetype within the game itself. Johnson’s body is occupied by dorky video game fan Spencer (Alex Wolff), who is beyond thrilled to reinvent himself as a heroic adventurer in the Indiana Jones mold. Johnson plays a little guy in a big man’s body with a twinkle in his eye and a healthy sense of fun, a dynamic that pays off winningly in his interactions with Anthony, a.k.a. “Fridge” (Kevin Hart), a star football player-turned-supply-toting-sidekick who’s experiencing the humbling inverse of Spencer’s musclebound metamorphosis.
There really isn’t a weak link in the core cast of body-swapped teenagers. Of the four, Selfie and Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Karen Gillan is the least well-known, but she holds her own admirably as a shy loner in the body of a kung-fu fighting Lara Croft type, particularly in the scene where she tries to distract two machine gun-toting guards with her awkward attempts at flirting. Meanwhile, Jack Black gives an appealingly silly performance as Bethany, a popular girl who gets stuck inside the body of a middle-aged male professor, vocal fry and obsession with Instagram intact. Bethany’s first experience with peeing standing up epitomizes the film’s sense of humor, which largely foregoes pop-culture references in favor of broad, character-based patter that gets by on the strength of the actors’ charisma. (Nick Jonas is less vibrant as the fifth wheel, a pilot character who’s been stuck in the game since 1996, but his teenage fans won’t really care.)
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is a sequel only in the sense that it’s about some kids who get stuck inside a jungle game and have to finish it to get out. The board-game conceit of the original is abandoned within the first five minutes, replaced by a retro video-game console that serves as a gateway into the magical kingdom of Jumanji. This premise allows for some clever touches, like the boxes listing each character’s strengths and weaknesses that pop up when they put their hands over their hearts and auxiliary characters like Rhys Darby’s Nigel, who delivers the same rote series of lines on a loop.
But where these nods to vintage video games show a spark of inspiration, the dialogue frequently overextends itself into what can be described as “Diablo Cody Lite,” a.k.a. painfully quippy and clever one-liners that are best handled by professionals. What sounds goofy and engaging coming from Kevin Hart or Dwayne Johnson is significantly less so coming from less experienced actors, and it’s the scenes featuring the characters’ original teenage selves that really highlight the try-hard nature of the script. The glib approach also pairs awkwardly with the shoehorned-in romance and clichéd lessons about teamwork and believing in yourself that seem to be mandatory for this sort of soft, PG-13, major-studio fare.
Something that’s missing from the new Jumanji is the surrealist flair of the original. In Welcome To The Jungle, the characters go straight from everyday life into a fully realized jungle environment, sidestepping the fusion of the two worlds that created some of the most memorable images in Joe Johnston’s 1995 film. Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) hails from the typically more performance-oriented world of comedy, which comes through in good ways—Bobby Cannavale’s scenery-chewing, insect-infested bad guy; the universally strong comedic leads—and in bad ones. Kasdan’s swooping overhead helicopter shots are more nauseating than thrilling, for example, and the animal CGI seems destined to age poorly. Still, while it’s got its share of groan-worthy moments, Welcome To The Jungle is fast-paced, frequently funny, and consistently entertaining, which is about the best you can hope for in a 20-years-late sequel. And yes, it does feature the Guns N’ Roses song.